Friday, July 1, 2016

The BFG movie review.

With E.T. and Jurassic Park under his belt, as well as countless production credits under his Amblin banner, Steven Spielberg has crafted some of the most beloved, endearing, and memorable family adventure films of all time. Similarly, the late author Roald Dahl has been behind some of the most fondly remembered children's books ever written, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox. And then Disney... well, you need no introduction there.

To think of these three famous icons coming together sounds like a dream come true, coming in the form of Spielberg's epic live-action reimagining of Dahl's The BFG. A scrumdiddlyumptious concept on paper, how does the end result turn out? Are we witness to the joyous and shiny enchantment of a Golden Phizzwizard, or are we to endure a mixture as angry as a nasty Trogglehumper? I'm sure the answer is obvious, but let's take a look.

Every night at the Witching Hour at 3 AM, young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) wanders around her unpleasant orphanage home taking care of her incompetent keeper's minor tasks behind her back, and reading Nicholas Nickelby in a state of insomnia. One night when peeking behind her bedroom curtain, she catches a mysterious cloaked giant (Mark Rylance) who takes her from the orphanage, and whisks her off to his homeland in Giant Country. The figure turns out to be a very pleasant and friendly dream keeper, nicknamed the Big Friendly Giant. The two almost instantly begin to form a good friendship, and the two begin to embrace the most courageous and quick-witted sides of themselves., especially as the vegetarian BFG faces torment and suspicion from his carnivorous bulky neighbors, led by Jemaine Clement's Fleshlumpeater.

In recent years, Steven Spielberg has steered himself away from more sentimental fare comparable to the likes of E.T., instead veering into a more procedural direction with the restrained Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, meaning his more sentimental side hasn't been seen since War Horse. But now helming The BFG, Spielberg is given freedom to embrace those whimsical and enchanting roots once more, and this side of him feels as perfectly suited to an adaptation of Dahl's story as there could be.

On paper, it would sound very easy for a story like The BFG to come across as overly childish or syrupy, especially as Dahl's original source material particularly bordered on twee, with the giants speaking in broken English that resembled baby talk, and characters experiencing whizzpoppers (in other words, fart jokes). But it's to the credit of the late Melissa Mathison (to whom the film is dedicated) that all of these traits are treated with much sincerity in the screenplay, and most of the film's soul comes out in the moments based less on narrative, and more on character and atmosphere.

Most of the film's soul can be felt purely in the scope of the film, enrapturing the viewer with a charming and unabashed sense of wonder and exploration, and sees Spielberg delivering on some of the most deeply felt moments of childlike awe and enjoyment since Jurassic Park. The film is not a quick sit, often progressing at intentionally slow speed, but the pure majesty of the world around us is so powerful that I still loved and savored every moment spent there. The film becomes an earnest and touching ode to childlike imagination, and the simple but overwhelming power and excitement of dreams that awaken the inner-child in the audience, but also makes sure to balance such things with a grounded sense of maturity that speaks to both children and adults on equal playing ground.

A key contributing factor to the film's soul is the excellently built-up friendship between Sophie and the BFG, which should hardly come as a surprise since Spielberg is so good with this particular kind of unlikely friendship, especially in how terrifically the two actors play off of each other. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill approaches the role of Sophie with a tremendous level of winning enthusiasm and wonderment, carrying the movie on her shoulders with a perfect balance between precocious and endearing, and it's to her great credit that she blends and gets genuinely lost within the pure amazement of the heavily digital environments, and we buy into the illusion. But just as capable is her gargantuan co-star, performed via motion-capture by Mark Rylance, who with only two films is already proving to be one of the finest collaborators in Spielberg's illustrious career. Not only are the effects work on the giant absolutely stunning to look at, seamlessly translating Dahl's seemingly unfilmable cartoonish design, but being given a greater range of silent acting, Rylance's expressions provide much charming and equally heartbreaking subtext with every new scene. At the same time, his words and skills acquired from stage acting also enrapture the viewer. Whenever he plays semi-narrator, such as reading snippets of Nicholas Nickelby or describing to Sophie the happy dream of a child that he visits, it just becomes a joy to listen to him.

But from beginning to end, this is all Spielberg's show, and even after over forty years shows no signs of losing his touch in visual storytelling. Much of this is owed to his always reliable technical crew, of which he always brings out the best in their abilities. Having pioneered the usage of CGI 23 years earlier with Jurassic Park, Spielberg has always been at the forefront of those who use it to bring out the best of their movies (well, mostly. Looking at you Indy 4), and with The BFG being his most expansive use of it yet, he proves no slouch in spectacle. Of course the motion capture employed by Joe Letteri and his magicians at Weta Digital is always a huge plus to have in any movie, but one certainly can't cut production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg short, bringing the same vivid imagination and epic scale in environments that they also brought to Avatar, while DP of choice Janusz Kaminski applies his skills as effectively as always, especially in regards to several extended takes as Sophie traverses the world of Giant Country in a panic. And not to be forgotten is Spielberg's greatest muse, maestro John Williams, who even at 84 still manages to melt even my most cynical heart.

About as good as anyone could ask for an adaptation of Dahl's beloved book to be, The BFG sees one of the all time great directors back in his whimsical roots, and succeeds spectacularly. A seamless blend between the whimsical enchantment of all three of its main driving forces, the ending mixture also treats the material at hand with just as much adult mentality and earnestness as it does appeal to a child's imaginative sense of adventure, finding most of its soul through the flawless friendship between its leads, and the result is the purest and most magical sense of spectacle imaginable. How scrumdiddlyumptious, it is...

****1/2 / *****

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